From Marilyn to Mao
On May 7, The Princeton Report on Knowledge and the Princeton Art Museum co-hosted a Forum on "Pink" in the arts. The discussion focused on two paintings from the museum's collection: Andy Warhol's "Blue Marilyn" (1962) and, "In Revolution There is Justice" (1968), a work from China's Cultural Revolution.
- The editors.
Panelists Mary Anne Case (Professor of Law, University of Chicago, and Visiting Fellow in Law and Public Affairs), Nigel Smith (Professor of English and Chair of Renaissance Studies Committee), Calvin Brown (Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings), and Caroline Harris (Curator of Education and Academic Programs), commented on the relationship between politics and aesthetics, the role of the artist in a mass society, sexuality, representation, and the law. The discussion was moderated by John Borneman.
John Borneman: Welcome to the Princeton Art Museum. This is the Forum for the next issue of The Princeton Report on Knowledge. Our theme for this issue is "Pink," a color with many important associations in terms how we think about gender, power, art, and politics. Let's begin with Andy Warhol's "Blue Marilyn." What do you see when you look at this piece, and does it for you bring about any association with the color pink?
Nigel Smith: I don't think I'm the best qualified person to start, but it seems to me to be typically Warhol, in the sense that he's making high art - even though he claims it's not high art - out of what I imagine was originally a photographic image. The "pinkness" for me is appropriate precisely because pink is what women wear. But here it's her face that is pink.
Calvin Brown: There are a few factual things that are important, I think, to the way we see this picture. It was painted in 1962, the year that Andy Warhol had his first New York, one-person exhibition at Eleanor Ward's Stable Gallery. He was very ambitious. He was already a successful illustrator, famous for doing shoes and magazine layouts, but for his first exhibition he chose to include these portraits of Marilyn Monroe, painted immediately after the actress' much-publicized suicide - or death from a drug overdose - on August 5th of 1962.
Warhol at this time was working on a series of death and disaster pictures; paintings that consisted of large hand-painted reproductions of tabloid newspaper front pages, with images of airplane crashes and automobile wrecks on them. In a way, "Blue Marilyn" can be seen in this light. It's a tragic picture, meant to be viewed as a "Memento Mori." Warhol took the image directly from a publicity photograph from the actress' 1953 movie "Niagara," cropped it down, re-photographed and transferred it to silkscreen, printed it on the canvas, and then abstractly painted the colored shapes in their appropriate areas. Once again, Warhol overprints the black screen print photographic image, this time slightly off register, to produce a painting that is more reminiscent of a cheap souvenir than a traditional portrait. The artist was tapping into a great deal of public sentiment surrounding the actress' death at the time, highly sensationalized in the press. We can see that she's been martyred by the industry. All the colors are symbolically placed: the red lips, the blue eye shadow, the blonde hair.
There were eight of these images of Marilyn in Warhol's first one-man show, all the same shape but with varying background colors. Warhol referred to them as "flavors." I like to think of them like the other disaster pictures: the bold colors were meant to be seen as a decorative, banal application over something that was really deeply tragic, and it's this double-edged sword that Warhol used repeatedly in the early '60s.
Caroline Harris: I have two strong associations or responses to this work. One has to do with children coming to the galleries - we bring perhaps 40 children through every morning - and there's a real poignancy when we use this piece because they don't know who she is. They don't recognize her at all. As Calvin was saying, what Warhol was working with here was the iconic imagery of Marilyn Monroe, and how fame disintegrates identity. But even that fame, her iconic status, is disintegrating now. The other association I have with this piece is cotton candy, because it's so artificial, and that sort of goes with the pink theme. The colors - and their juxtaposition - are completely artificial. It makes me think of that great scene in "Niagara," when Marilyn first walks out. There's a song playing on the phonograph and she's in a very tight pseudo-outdoorsy outfit. She sort of lounges, throws back her hair, and the man says to her, "Do you like this song?" She replies, in that breathy voice, "It's the only song." It's a terrible piece of dialogue, but it has that same sort of artificiality about it.
Borneman: Thank you. I'm going to ask the same question about the other painting on the left, which was done by the Old Labor Revolutionary Team of the Vehicle Repair Section in Changxindian District in 1968. It's called "In Revolution There Is Justice." What do you see when you look at this piece, and does it for you bring about any association with pink?
Smith: I wish these guys could come and paint my car! This painting reminds me of being at university in the fall of 1977. When I first went into the room of my assigned tutor - he was a 40-something man, wearing only denims and a Chairman Mao cap - there was a white board behind him, and in red marker ink it said, "Art is not a mirror. It is a hammer." I see this piece as part of a long tradition of communist art, and what's striking is that the pink in the top is a background to the red. It's a distant emanation of red, and red is the color that matters, of course. That's communism. It's as if the red sun of Chairman Mao has infected everything else, so that everything glows pink.
The relationship between pink and red is interesting in both pictures, actually. We haven't addressed Marilyn's black-red lips, which are set off against her pink face: that's Marilyn's secret weapon, and I put it to you that it parallels the red of communism in the other picture.
Case: I have to say that were I not presented with this work in the context of a symposium on "pink," I would probably have looked at it and not seen any pink at all. A lot of what the prior speaker described as pink, I would call rosy, as in the "rosy-fingered dawn." And that's a word that may describe a color close in the spectrum to pink, but with many very different associations, none of which was captured in John's list of things that pink is associated with. But forced to think of this as pink, I see the pink predominantly in the face of Chairman Mao. My field of specialization is sex, gender, and feminist theory, and I always think of pink with blue, and masculine with feminine. This would make Chairman Mao the disembodied, feminine part of the painting, as compared with the blue-shirted, bronze-toned muscular guy, who takes up the lower -though, it is true, two-thirds - of the work and is not disembodied in any way. The only flesh we see of Chairman Mao is his incredibly pink face. Forced back into my limited art historical training, I look at this and recall ancient Egyptian sculpture, where, favorably for a feminist like me, male and female figures were very often represented in similar dimensions, if they were of similar status. But one of the ways you could tell the boys from the girls was that the girls were pink and the boys were tan or bronzed, because they, like our worker hero here, saw the sun. Now, maybe it's the sun of Chairman Mao that has tanned the worker, but maybe it's just that the worker gets out more than Mao does.
Brown: Interestingly, the Curator of Asian Art explained to me that the top part of the portrait of Chairman Mao was very likely painted by a different hand, whose job it was to paint renderings of Chairman Mao. This was then added onto the bottom, which would have been painted locally by a different artist - in this case by the Vehicle Repair Shop. There are the hands of at least two artists in the Warhol, too: the photographer who took the original photograph of Marilyn and then Warhol, who transferred this image onto the silk-screened painting.
It is also very important, I think, to remember that this poster was made in 1968, only two years into the Cultural Revolution. There was in China an artistic culture and practice based on traditional calligraphic values that had been strongly and mightily repressed in favor of this kind of poster, in favor of social realist art.
Harris: I've also always been intrigued by the dichotomy in this painting. The top half of these works were produced I assume in large numbers and sent around the country. Then cooperatives of people would create the bottom half of the work. At the point where the two halves meet, you can see the more professional lines coming from the sun above, and then these become less well drawn as you move to the bottom half of the work. As Calvin was suggesting, this is a social realist work, and one of the things they've turned their backs on is the whole tradition of literati art, which emphasized through calligraphic line the expression of an individual personality. This is industrial calligraphy.
There's a wonderful book by Margaret Rose called, "Marx's Lost Aesthetic," which tries to imagine what Marx might have written in a book on aesthetics. Of course, one possibility is to imagine that avant-garde artists would have been at the forefront of the revolution, and artists at the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia - people like Vladimir Tatlin - believed in that. They believed they were going to be at the center, helping to push people forward towards a new utopia. Well, very quickly that tradition was destroyed; expunged in favor of the social realist tradition that this Chinese poster exemplifies.
Borneman: Each of you has been trained in different disciplines - English and Renaissance Studies, Art History, and Law. Speaking from the perspective of your disciplinary expertise, what would you say about the aesthetic dimension or aesthetic appeal of these pictures?
Smith: Well, in its way, the Mao and hero worker painting does speak epic values, and I think one is drawn to think in these terms. I've just been teaching Milton's "Paradise Lost," and to me this looks like the beginning of Book Three: Chairman Mao is God and his gaze is inscrutable. He's looking down across history. He's looking across dialectical materialism. So, also, is the hero worker, even if he struggles every day. If the painting was actually done by people who were repairing vehicles, then art has been subsumed into labor. That raises the whole debate about labor in a communist society and it's particular refusal to treat the aesthetic as a separate sphere. Milton, by contrast, thought that labor was all about thinking - the labor of the hands was a difficult issue for him.
As for the Warhol piece, given that it is 1962, my training would lead me to pursue your line about crisis and not just the death of Monroe.
Brown: Crisis in general?
Smith: Well, there was the assassination of John F. Kennedy the following year. After that event their faces are joined in his art, aren't they, in a way?
Brown: Yes, very much so.
Case: I was originally taken a back at the notion that there was a connection between aesthetics and law, but of course there is, and it's particularly relevant in the history of the law with respect to Warhol's "Blue Marilyn," the rest of Warhol's work, and the rest of Marilyn's work. I don't know how many of you know this, but Marilyn Monroe's estate is in the forefront of the right of publicity. She is one of the most prominent celebrities to have successfully maintained control over her image after her death through her estate - actually through the Strasb e rgs, who were her heirs. This is not my area of law, but it touches on an area I am involved in, which is the First Amendment. Here's where Warhol's Marilyn comes in: the First Amendment protects the use of works that otherwise would be subject to copyright or other restrictions very often because they're part of an artistic or critical project. I've seen references in c as es that discuss other appropriations of celebrity images, which the judge clamps down on, that specifically draw a contrast to the Warhol Marilyn, saying that, because of Warhol's not only aesthetic qualities, but also social commentary, what he does with Marilyn is protected in a way that what other artists do with other images is not.
Now, I think the legal issues with respect to the appropriation of both of these images have interesting First Amendment parallels and contrasts, as well. Because my specialty in law remains feminist theory, I'll return to the masculine-feminine contrast, the contrast between a public woman and a public man. What we have with Mao is an image of the leader that is an official and authorized one - it's the image of a coin or a medallion, really. And the controls that are placed on the image of the leader are very different from the controls that are placed on the image of a public woman. Marilyn is one of the few public women who has maintained some control of her image. Nevertheless, Warhol got it away from her.
Brown: That's interesting, since Warhol was doing other movie stars - teenage stars Troy Donahue and Natalie Wood - at the same time, frequently repeating these images, just like Coke bottles or soup cans. The idea was this marketability, a trademark face that could be vastly multiplied. The iconic image of Chairman Mao is used much in the same way, though to a radically different purpose. His face is the image of the new China, reproduced and put into every conceivable context. In this sense it's a very similar project.
Caroline Harris talked about the literati artistic tradition that was brutally suppressed at the time of the Cultural Revolution. There are interesting conventions in the calligraphy that were new at this time, but have since become much more common. In this case we can see that the calligraphy runs horizontally instead of vertically, and is quite square - innovations that would have been seen at the time as a direct affront to the old China.
In some ways I think it's amazing that we are able to find grounds to talk about the two pieces at the same time, since they are taken from such radically different, even diametrically opposed, aesthetic cultures.
Harris: I'd like to return to the issue of law and images. It's fascinating for all three of these people - Mao, Marilyn, and Andy Warhol. Of course, Mao's image was very tightly controlled; it had to look a certain way, and as we talked about, this particular image would have come from a central artist. Warhol's estate is also very tightly controlled; it's one of the toughest artist estates to get the rights to reproduce, even if you own the images. So, for example, even though we have his "Brillo Box" (1964) downstairs in our museum, we can't use a photograph or reproduce it, even in our newsletter, without getting permission from the Warhol Foundation.
Borneman: Warhol famously avoided explicit political allegiances. Yet his art, many would say, was revolutionary. By contrast, Mao, the famous revolutionary, encouraged a highly stylized and some would say facile form of artistic production. Can you say something about the relationship between politics and style, specifically revolutionary style or art, in these two pieces?
Smith: It is, I think, only with post-1900 art and politics that revolutionaries have a problem with the avant-garde. There are significant exceptions in European modernism - certainly in literature, sometimes in visual arts. But on the whole, the further east that communism goes, the more resistant it has been to innovative art. And instead, you see the use of caricature. It's propaganda; it appears to avoid the aesthetic - unless of course it's re-appropriated by pinko western lefties as part of their avant-garde.
When the English had their revolution and cut the head off of their king, there was an attempt - and Milton was part of it - to make a republican art, around 1650. Some of Andrew Marvell's poetry is connected with it. There's actually the first English translation of Longinus' "Treatise on the Sublime," where he says that the best poetry is only ever written in a free society, without tyrants. This is generally not remembered, because the English Commonwealth only lasted for 11 years, and because it was driven by people who would look to us like religious fundamentalists - people who in a sense weren't interested in images and the aesthetic. This revolutionary art was stepped on by the restored monarchy and thus has not survived in popular memory.
Case: I look at the Mao and I see something that is, I would think, antithetical to what the Chairman preached. In Mao's face, I see the iconic medallion of a monarch, a sort of Mao a s sun king, or a coin with the monarch's image on it. My understanding is that one of the words for money in China to this day is "renminbi," the people's money. This is not the people's money. This is the image of the ruler's money, or again, the ruler as disembodied head. And then I turn to the Marilyn and think, you know, she's the king's mistress, and I want to see next to it Jackie O, the king's consort.
Harris: That's where they usually show her.
Brown: I know I'm sort of the voice of history in this case. When Warhol and his pop buddies burst onto the New York art scene in the late '60s, Abstract Expressionism had been the dominant painting style in avant-garde circles. There was almost a mannerist style of intensely personal, sincere abstraction, with a lot of paint, a lot of motion, and a lot of color. Warhol, very self consciously, does everything to fly completely in the face of all that, as did some of the other young artists working at the time, by incorporating real objects into paintings, using photo-silkscreen and collage techniques - techniques that are not at all sensitive to the touch of the artist's hand, but ones where images are selected and placed, rather than rendered. One would like to think that this new art was transformative to the general culture, but I think that the more you look at it, something profound within the culture had already changed in such a way that that this new work was immediately acceptable in avant-garde circles. The art world was not the same after Warhol did this stuff, but I think it really reflected a huge social shift that had already happened.
It makes me think that there was an equally violent cultural break in China, also, though it might not have been intended by the people who made this poster or who put it up. In the wake of the Cultural Revolution, there was an evolution towards avant-garde Chinese art, which is flourishing wildly today. And I think there are many ways in which the construction of that image in totally non-traditional ways perhaps opened the doors for such a huge paradigm shift in cultural production.
Harris: Maybe ten years ago I went to a panel discussion of contemporary performance artists, half of whom were Chinese and half of whom were American. One of the Chinese artists had recently moved to the States. He had done some pretty challenging pieces in China and had gotten in a lot of trouble for it - I think he'd been arrested several times. When he came to the States one of the things he said that struck him was that in China, in a culture that is a tyranny, you have a very loud voice. He said it's like having a megaphone. He felt that his work was heard and had an impact. But in the United States, where we're so used to shock, and where there's an art market, he found it much more challenging. I think it's an interesting question how strong a political message you can have within the art market in the States.
Brown: Yes, especially one that coddles the avant-garde. In Warhol's case major institutional collectors were buying his work right out of the show. How avant-garde is that?
Borneman: One last question. The raised, muscular arms in the painting of Mao suggest that this work is about power, especially power of the male body, the male worker and his body. And Warhol's Marilyn also suggests a certain power, in that we are free to appropriate her image or her sex for ourselves. Can you comment on the relationship between sex and power in these two works?
Smith: I think the Monroe picture is really dangerous. It is profoundly erotic - I said before that I thought in part it turns on the relationship between the lips and the surface of the face. It seems to be presenting as art photographic images, which were already accepted as erotic, within a pretty obviously straight context. And I think Mrs. Kennedy actually fit the same category, from what I can remember of her representation in the period. So I think that Andy Warhol is playing with something quite dangerous.
By contrast, I would categorize the other painting as puritanical. It comes from a society where the erotic as we know it is not, I would think, present. It suggests that muscularity gets you places. That, of course, is an epic truth.
Case: For me, both pieces dichotomize strength and power. I think that the Marilyn is powerful in its eroticism, with the "come-hither" look and the parted lips, but also in the association of Marilyn with weakness. If you look at the other picture, the power is in the disembodied head. The body on the bottom is strong, but as a support; as something like a caryatid, reaching up to the Mao. Or even one of these captive Egyptian figures that's in submission.
Brown: It's ironic that getting rid of the cult of personality and doing a painting as part of an anonymous group is meant to free an individual. Here it has exactly the opposite effect, since it strips out any kind of personal experience. The poster is so airless, when it's meant to be liberating. By contrast the death mask-Marilyn is so liberating in its flatness, even when it's really a picture about disaster, death, and mourning.
Francois Boucher, French, 1703 - 1770
Arion on the dolphin, 1748
Oil on canvas
86 x 135.5 cm (33 7/8 x 53 3/8 in.)
Princeton University Art Museum. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund (y1980-2)
Harris: I can't help bringing in Francois Boucher's "Arion on the Dolphin" (1748), because all of the issues that we're talking about really resonate with much older discussions in the history of art about the power of color versus the power of line, a conversation that goes back to the Renaissance and before. Which is the primary element in art? Is it contour line, modeling, and light and shadow, or is it color? And it's a debate that raged around artists like Rubens and Titian before him, where color, especially rich colors, laid on in several layers with thick impasto, really defined a painterly approach. This could be a deeply gendered argument, and Charles Blanc in the 19th century stated categorically that drawing was the masculine sex for art and color was the feminine sex. Matisse would later say that, for him, it was the opposite. But Boucher is a classic case, because we tend to think of 18th century Rococo art - with its pastel colors, its light pinks and light blues - as being female, and indeed there were great female patrons of Rococo art. But there were great male patrons as well. Diderot, who described Boucher as a painter of fans - clearly a gendered comment - said that he, "no longer has but two colors: white and red" - the components of pink - and "does not paint a single nude woman without her bottom being as made up as her face." So Diderot makes a very clear connection between Boucher's technique and making up a face, a woman's toilette.
Borneman: Are there any questions from the audience?
Alexander Nehamas (Professor of Philosophy): I'd like to ask all of you to say something more about the eroticism of the Warhol, because each one of you has said that it is both erotic and dangerous. What are we supposed to see in Marilyn? Are we supposed to see a Playboy model, which, of course, she had been? Or are we supposed to see a predator, or something much more complex and ambiguous than either? I've been looking at the picture now for an hour [laughter], and it is not at all clear what exactly in it is erotic. Is it a picture of a powerful or of a very weak person? Marilyn can be thought of as a victim - of Arthur Miller, of Kennedy and so on and so forth - who was killed by all of them together. But she does not appear to me as a victim here. On the other hand, if you have 40 of her, perhaps our relationship to her changes, since someone has literally manhandled her image. Does that make her less or more powerful? What are we to see in her?
Case: The lawyer in me says if you see her as a Playboy model, then you have reinforced the idea that she's been appropriated, because that, of course, is what happened to her in Playboy. She never posed for Playboy: Hugh Hefner bought her pictures when she became famous, and published them. It's worth asking whether she would have thought - indeed, whether we should think - that Warhol was doing the same thing to her. That is to say, to the extent her estate is protecting her right of publicity, would they also want to protect her against this? Should they be allowed to protect against this?
Brown: Warhol is very much a kind of conjurer. He's not a painter in the same way Boucher is. Even when he's doing the death and disaster pictures, he picks something that he knows is socially charged and subverts it, uses it in an irreverent manner. Then he does something to it that counters that again, and he throws it out there and lets it float. Because of his magazine work he instinctively knows what images have weight in the mass media. He's totally uninterested in aesthetic weight. He's almost, as he famously said, not trying to do anything at all - which as we all know is sometimes the most powerful thing to do. It's almost perverse: he would borrow all these file photographs from the New York Public Library and then not return them and continually pay the fines. His point was to be outside of things.
Harris: There's a kind of violence to her image.
Brown: Yes, the picture is called "Blue Marilyn." It's not called "Marilyn Monroe." It does a kind of violence to the public's cherishing image of her.
Smith: In answer to Alexander's question, she herself was, of course, a victim, but it's the image that has the power.
Nehamas: I think the image presents both sides. To say that Warhol always does the opposite of what is expected is to suggest that there is some stable situation that he turns around into something else, negatively charged but equally stable. My own sense is that, whatever we say the picture does, it does that as well as its opposite, and that's what I find amazing about it. And another thing: it's incredible how much more solid and three-dimensional the picture becomes as you keep looking at it for a while. At first, Warhol's silk-screens are as flat as anything, and you can't tell exactly why the colors don't fit the subject's outlines. Now, after an hour, Marilyn is standing out from her background. And that shows how important it is to look at the picture over a long period of time, to let her gradually come out, so to speak. This picture is much more complex than I ever thought.
Borneman: Thank you all very much. [applause]
Old Labor Revolutionary Team of the Vehicle Repair Section, Changxindian District In Revolution There is Justice, 1968 Painting 180 x 875 cm. (70 7/8 x 344 1/2 in.) Princeton University Art Museum. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund (2001-44)
Andy Warhol, American, 1928 - 1987 Blue Marilyn, 1962 Acrylic and silkscreen on canvas 50.5 x 40.3 cm. (19 7/8 x 15 7/8 in.) Princeton University Art Museum. Gift of Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Class of 1922, and Mrs. Barr (y1978-46) Photo Credit: Bruce M. White